Lameez Omarjee: A millennial's guide to apartheid heritage

I was in grade four, waiting outside a classroom. A grade seven, white boy walked past me and said: "What’s up, brown-arse coolie." His friend, who was with him, chuckled. I just stood there silently – trying to figure out if I should respond or just pretend I didn’t hear.

I didn’t tell anyone what happened. Not the teacher whose class I attended that next period, nor my friends. I didn’t tell my parents when I got home that afternoon.

Maybe I didn’t say anything because it was humiliating. Maybe I didn’t because the word "coolie" is so vile I couldn’t imagine it passing from my own mouth. (Even typing it out makes me feel uncomfortable.)

Now, almost 20 years later, these are the questions that run through my mind some nights before I drift to sleep. One night I figured that I remained silent because of utter disbelief, or rather denial that racism was still rampant in the year 2001, and someone from my generation could, in fact, be racist.

I am bringing up this story because as much as my peers and I want to believe that apartheid died in 1994, it’s left a rotten legacy.

Whether it’s the racism of the Vicki Mombergs and Adam Catzavelos’, or addressing spatial planning, which pushed people of colour to the outskirts of economic hubs - there’s a lot of dismantling that still needs to happen.

We could congratulate the architects of apartheid for succeeding in getting inequality and economic exclusion to last more than 20 years after the regime fell.

But this is not the end of SA’s story.

The World Bank released a report in April this year, titled An Incomplete Transition: Overcoming the Legacy of Exclusion in South Africa. The organisation endeavoured to get a better understanding of SA’s Goliaths by consulting with Treasury, the National Planning Commission and other key government departments.

It concluded that although South Africa managed to make a political transition through the introduction of democracy, the economic transition is not yet complete.

This is not something we don’t already know. But what was striking in the report is that the post-apartheid government, led by the ANC, sought out to adopt policy to reduce inequality - however, in some cases, these policies "inadvertently" entrenched inequality.

The World Bank makes an example of housing policies, intended to reduce "skewed spatial patterns", but inadvertently reinforcing them by "not encourag[ing] urban densification", as the organisation put it.

So the World Bank proposed solutions to treat the causes responsible for the poverty and inequality, as opposed to the symptoms - which policy was designed to address. The solutions address insufficient skills among the youth, the skewed distribution of land and resources, low competition in markets, under-serviced, historically disadvantaged settlements with limited or expensive connectivity, as well as climate shocks such as water insecurity.

When the World Bank presented this report to Parliament’s Standing Committee of Finance (Scof) in August, representatives of the organisation were not warmly received by all MPs.

Scof chair Yunus Carrim explained during the meeting that the Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) programme - an economic plan adopted by government - never achieved the growth and employment targets it was meant to.

The World Bank was one of many consultants for GEAR. For this reason, it was particularly hard to digest the recommendations of the Incomplete Transition report, Carrim said. 

In the report, the World Bank did acknowledge that SA has come a long way in addressing exclusion, and predicted that as the country became more inclusive, inequality and poverty would be reduced. The organisation expects the consumption gini coefficient – a measure of inequality – to reduce from 62.8 in 2017 to 59.5 by 2030.

I’ve seen how the remnants of apartheid are slowly fading away. My family lives in a house across from what used to be a buffer zone – land designated by municipalities to separate race groups. I would watch people take short cuts through that veld as they moved between the Indian and Coloured townships.

It was not until I went to university that the municipality managed to sell off that land and people started building property on it. The ground that was once an instrument to separate race groups, is now the foundation for a pre-school, and a block of flats where people of different races and religions live. It’s comforting to think that the neighbours’ children will possibly never know what that piece of land used to be. 

And that grade seven boy? I do sometimes wonder what kind of man he has become, and if he is raising his children to be racist. I know that his family emigrated to Australia, where he matriculated. 

As for the rest of us choosing to stay - we should continue working towards building a South Africa with equal opportunities for future generations to inherit. 

Lameez Omarjee is a senior financial reporter at Fin24. Views expressed are her own.

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